The Sarkozy chapter in the history of the Fifth Republic is likely to be one that the French will want to skip over in a hurry, pretending that it never really happened. The hyperactive President Bling-Bling might one day make a good subject for a film biopic but for now, it seems that France wants to move on with François Hollande leading in the polls after Sunday’s first round of the presidential election. His quiet ambition stands in great contrast with the dynamic, some say erratic, style of Nicolas Sarkozy which lost its appeal very quickly after he took office in 2007.
Sarkozy’s personality was only part of the problem though. He might have been forgiven for his flashy behaviour and maybe even for wearing stacked heels if he had managed to turn some of his hard-line rhetoric into action regarding unemployment, disaffected youth in the banlieues and immigration. On the other hand, the domestic reforms he did propose were often met with resistance and hostility demonstrating that the reluctance of the French to embrace reform could also be something of an obstacle on occasion. Take the issue of the row over pensions in 2010. The majority of French people agreed that putting the retirement age up from 60 to 62 was necessary given the dire financial situation the country was facing and that people live a lot longer these days. Yet millions still took to the streets to protest in spite of acknowledging these inescapable facts.
Sarkozy does have a reasonably good record on foreign affairs particularly with the success of intervention in Libya last year, brokering an agreement between Russia and Georgia in 2008 as well as an impressively assertive EU presidency and good working relationship with Angela Merkel. But he was never going to be rewarded for this at the polls. Instead it was Marine Le Pen and her political strategists who successfully tapped into the national mood despite not making it into the final run-off. I hope that the worrying increase in the Front National vote is only a response to the lack of right-wing alternatives in this particular election given Sarkozy’s unpopularity as the incumbent President. Hopefully, the result will make both the Parti Socialiste and the UMP reflect on why this happened and also act to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Sarkozy still possesses amazing reserves of self-belief as demonstrated in his characteristically defiant speech on 22nd April after exit polls placed him second in the first round of voting. The results of the final run-off will largely depend on how Le Pen’s supporters decide to vote next week (if at all) with both Sarkozy and Hollande attempting to woo the far right. Either way, it still remains likely that Hollande will have to physically drag Sarkozy out of the Elysée palace in order to move in there himself.